Submission—Higher education at the crossroads

On 28 June 2002, the Australian Academy of Science made the following submission to the Higher Education Review.


Introduction

The Australian Academy of Science welcomes the opportunity to respond to the invitation of the Minister of Education, Science and Training to comment on his Discussion Paper, Higher education at the crossroads. As Australia’s premier science body, the Academy has a vital interest in the health of Australia’s higher education system in general and in science in particular.

In the Academy’s policy document Priorities in research and innovation for the next Australian government, released just before the last election, the Academy noted that

Australia needs a thriving and vigorous higher education system to achieve its aspirations as an innovative nation. Universities play a special role in the knowledge economy through

  • the production of qualified graduates;
  • fundamental research to underpin the innovation system;
  • linkages to the wider innovation system;
  • the professional development of the workforce.

If a nation’s university system is ailing it will not succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. Australia’s university system is ailing: class sizes are too large, salary levels are too low, current funding levels per student are too low, and morale is low. There is too much emphasis on redistribution of existing funding and on increasing activity as a means to increasing income. There is not enough emphasis on the need to increase per capita funding to allow universities to meet the increasing requirements being placed upon them. Australia needs a healthy, efficient and diverse higher education system that serves a multiplicity of missions. [1]

Thus the Academy is particularly pleased and encouraged by the determination, and even courage, that Minister Nelson has shown in his public comments and ultimately in his determination to tackle such a vital issue for the future of Australia as the future of higher education. Higher education in Australia is indeed at a crossroad. This Review has the opportunity to steer Australian higher education down the right road for the benefit of not only Australian higher education, but also Australia as a nation.

The Academy of Science does not seek to respond to all of the important issues that are raised in the Discussion Paper. Rather, it wishes to make a few specific comments on issues that are of particular significance to the Academy’s interest in the long-term health of Australia’s scientific and technological activities. These points reiterate some of the issues raised, and recommendations made, in our position paper: Priorities in research and innovation for the next Australian government.

Key points

Many of the following key points interrelate in the sense that they highlight the need to move towards a vision for higher education based upon developing multiple missions that allow each institution to define its own long-term strategies, and for governance and advisory structures and funding mechanisms to facilitate this pluralistic development process.

Governance and advisory structures

For some time the Academy has been concerned at the disappearance of coordinating or advisory bodies. [2] In the Priorities document the Academy made the following recommendation:

Recommendation 2: The next Australian Government must encourage a shared vision for Australian higher education, in which government, universities and the private sector work for the common good of Australia. This may be effectively achieved through the establishment of a Higher Education Funding Council.

The Academy believes that such a Council could assist in the development of such a vision and encourage innovation and diversity in our universities, allowing multiple missions to be pursued based on each institution’s own goals and distinctive competencies (see key point 2). This Council should also address the ‘systemic’ role played by universities in collaborating with other R&D performing organisations in Australia (CSIRO, ANSTO, Geosciences Australia, AIMS etc.). It could help to ensure that adequate funding is available for Australian universities’ international activities, such as research collaboration and student exchanges etc.

The Academy considers that it is in the national interest that individual universities are funded at arm's length from government, allowing each institution to develop its own strategic objectives and plans. The synergy of the relationship that could be achieved between a Higher Education Funding Council and the existing research councils would allow for a pluralism of funding mechanisms that combine to facilitate achieving the long-term vision for Australian higher education.

Key Point 1: The policy and resource allocation dialogue between the higher education sector and the Commonwealth Government would be improved by establishing an inter-mediating Council. This Council would be tasked with assisting in the development of a ‘forward strategy’ for higher education and with coordinating the dialogue with Federal and State governments over this forward strategy.

A policy framework allowing multiple missions to develop

Successful policy approaches overseas place an emphasis on ‘bottom up’ strategy development based upon institution-specific aspirations developed by those institutions – possibly in consultation with state/local and central governments. Funding mechanisms and governance/advisory structures are designed to facilitate the development and exploitation of distinctive competencies in teaching and research rather than aiming to produce a ‘one size fits all’ structure.

For example, the recently revised US Federal Government technical guidelines on Cost Principles for Educational Institutions issued by the Office of the Management of the Budget clearly reiterates that the underlying policy principle is that:

Each institution, possessing its own unique combination of staff, facilities, and experience, should be encouraged to conduct research and educational activities in a manner consonant with its own academic philosophies and institutional objectives. [3]

The Academy therefore suggests that the next phase of work in the Higher Education Review process include a consideration of pluralistic models for higher education developed overseas. The design and operation of the Californian higher education is one (of many) interesting examples of how to achieve a structural differentiation in roles and goals.

Key point 2: The over-arching policy objective should be to achieve a pluralistic system in which each institution defines, for itself, the role it seeks to play in the national and international contexts.

Performance measurements for research that support multiple missions

The Academy has already recommended in its Priorities paper that some form of research assessment exercise should be introduced.

Recommendation 4: The next Australian government should reassess the possibility of introducing a research assessment exercise to influence the allocation of research-related funding to universities.

The data generated by such a performance measurement system should ideally cover both the ‘internally’ peer-reviewed assessment of the excellence of the research and an assessment of the longer-term wider socio-economic impact of that research. The former would be of particular assistance to government funding allocations (see key point 4) and the latter would contribute to public awareness of the value of research to the nation. Scope exists for relating the impact and outcome measurements to the government’s national research priorities framework.

Key point 3: Performance measures of the excellence and external socio-economic impact of research should be introduced in order to inform both government resource allocations and student and research partner decision-making.

Efficient funding mechanisms that support multiple missions

The costs versus benefits of existing and potential future mechanisms for funding research infrastructure in universities should be assessed with regard to the efficiency of the system of funding and the benefits that stem from the formulae used to allocate this funding.

Overly complex funding systems that distribute funding through multiple channels can lead to high overhead administration costs for the funders and high overhead application costs for those that seek the funding. Whilst many of these cost items may be hard to measure and value (such as the time spent preparing grant applications) the impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of teaching and research can be considerable.

Funding allocations that are not based upon demonstrated excellence in research and the wider socio-economic impact of past research limit the potential to move towards a pluralistic sector with multiple missions. As a result, the efficiency and the effectiveness of government expenditure on higher education is reduced because funding does not relate closely to distinctive competencies.

The experience of implementing the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the UK has resulted in measured, and widely noted, improvements in the UK’s performance on the world stage in terms of both publication and citation rates. [4] This is attributed to the movement of academic staff to leading departments and the closer alignment of funding to areas of distinctive competence – increasing the overall efficiency with which funding generates research outputs and outcomes. Given that Australia’s performance in terms of the citation impact of scientific publications is a matter of concern [5], the long-term consequences of linking funding allocation to research performance are likely to have a similar impact upon the efficiency with which this aspect of public funding is utilised. Indeed, the attributable cost of the UK’s RAE has been estimated at just 1 per cent of the funding allocation to which it relates. [6]

Key point 4: The current funding for research infrastructure is too complex, with limited funding being distributed through too many channels. This leads to high overhead administration and application costs that reduce the efficiency of the funding allocation process. The funding system should be simplified with a view to minimising the overhead costs borne both by the providers of, and applicants for, available funding. Block grant funding for research infrastructure should be based upon the results of the research performance measurement exercise.

Support for enabling sciences throughout the education system

Achieving wide-spread scientific literacy and attaining leading-edge research capabilities in science requires that key enabling skills are acquired in primary, secondary and tertiary education. These ‘enabling’ sciences are: mathematics, statistics and the core ‘building block’ disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology. Without this key enabling knowledge – and skills – it is difficult to build the more advanced capabilities required for 21st century science, whether within science or in the wider knowledge economy. As US educators stress, the future requires ‘T’ skills – deep specialisation in (at least) one area combined with a broad yet effective knowledge of a far wider range of areas. Knowledge of the enabling sciences should ideally be a key part of the ‘T’ skills of Australia’s knowledge workers. This requires adequate national curricula, teacher training programs and ‘awareness raising’ activities.

It is significant that one of Australia's most eminent biologists, Sir Gustav Nossal, has observed that students should 'do as much mathematics and statistics as you can in your degree – these skills will empower your professional lives'. Similar comments could be made about chemistry and physics. These enabling subjects provide the template for understanding all areas of scientific endeavours and are particularly important in the emerging fields of biotechnology and nanotechnology.

The Academy notes with concern that, standardised against the number of students pursuing English, there has been a trend away from physics, chemistry and advanced mathematics at secondary level. The data also indicate that because of the perceived lack of career opportunities in science many students doing traditional science and mathematics subjects in years 11 and 12 do not progress to science studies at university. [7] In the student cohorts studying science at university there has been a trend away from majors in the enabling subjects.

Australian science education also suffers from the lack of a nationally agreed curriculum. There are significant differences in the educational priorities of states, particularly at primary and secondary level, and no uniform accreditation of (science) teachers from state to state. Projections indicate that there will be a severe shortage of appropriately trained teachers of mathematics, physics and chemistry over the next decade. Furthermore, there is inadequate provision for consistent career development through life-long learning strategies. The Academy is concerned that rigorous prerequisites have been abandoned by science providers at many of Australia's tertiary institutions. Such practice underestimates the cumulative nature of science teaching and learning. The Academy recommends the development of a national science curriculum and a national definition of the minimal educational background of teachers of science and mathematics.

The Academy consequently reiterates its previous recommendation made in the Priorities paper over incentives to train as science and mathematics teachers with some slight modifications via key point 5.

Key point 5: The decline of interest in studying the core enabling sciences necessary for both public scientific literacy and future advanced research careers is a matter of concern. Improved science curricula and a greater supply of good teachers would help to reverse this trend. In order to provide an incentive for students to train as science and mathematics teachers HECS-exempt scholarships should be introduced to cover such courses. At the very least, a percentage of HECS debts for science and mathematics teachers should be forgiven for each year of service.

Conclusion

These five key points highlight the areas in which the Academy is able to provide an input into this important Review process. Above all else, setting the clear policy objective of moving towards a higher education sector allowing multiple missions to be pursued at each institution’s instigation, and making sure that governance structures, performance measurement and funding mechanisms are all fully aligned to such a policy would represent a major step forward in Australian policy for Higher Education. We can think of no better outcome from this Review.

Notes

  • [1] Australian Academy of Science (2001), Priorities in research and innovation for the next Australian government, AAS Position Paper.
  • [2] See, for example, http://www.science.org.au/events/npc2001.htm.
  • [3] Office of the Management of the Budget (2000), Cost Principles for Educational Institutions, Circular no. A-21 (Reviewed). http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/circulars/a021/a021.html.
  • [4] See, for example, Adams, J (2002), Research Assessment in the UK, Science, Vol 296, p 805.
  • [5] See Butler, L (2001), Monitoring Australia’s Scientific Research, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra. Australia.
  • [6] Adams op cit.
  • [7] Australian Council of Deans of Science – Trends in Science Education.

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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